Producer Joe Chiccarelli knew all about My Morning Jacket when the band walked into Avatar Studios in New York City this past November. He'd listened carefully to the band's previous releases, absorbed their compelling blend of rock/country/indie tendencies and seen them live a handful of times. It would be fair to say that he was a fan of the Louisville, Ky., quintet.
“I was very, very excited about working with them,” Chiccarelli says a couple of months after the final tracking dates wrapped. “It is really fortunate when you get called to work on projects where you are a genuine fan of the band. Z [the band's 2005 breakout release] is definitely one of my favorite albums, and, quite honestly, I was like, ‘How am I going to top that?’”
Jim James, My Morning Jacket's frontman and main songwriter, made sure that the producer didn't have to worry about topping anything — he showed up in New York City with 18 songs were ready to go. Yet the move to New York City was a new experience for My Morning Jacket because they had recorded their early releases in a home studio in Louisville and Z at Allaire Studios in upstate New York.
My Morning Jacket are (L-R) Carl Broemel, Two Tone Tommy, Jim James, Bo Koster and Patrick Hallahan.
Photo: Autumn DeWilde
Chiccarelli suggested New York City after hearing the Evil Urges demos. “I felt like the songs were much more accessible and melodic and had stronger grooves,” the producer reports. “I felt that they needed to be recorded in a more live environment. The idea of going off to a mountain and being isolated didn't make sense to me for this music — it felt like this needed some inspiration and invigoration, and needed to be done in a city.”
According to James, the move to an urban studio did influence the sessions. “We had already had our remote fantasy land experience out in Colorado [where they wood-shedded the new material] so we wanted the actual recording to feel different, tighter and more focused, as they say,” he explains. “We looked at it almost as if we were a construction crew working on a house, coming into work and leaving at the same time every day. So there wasn't really a lot of time lying around and dilly-dallying.”
Chiccarelli and the band — guitarist and singer James, Two Tone Tommy on bass, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel and Bo Koster on keys — set up shop in Avatar starting the first of November 2007 and worked straight until December 10, with three weeks of that dedicated to live tracking. Songs were recorded live to 24 tracks of analog tape until they needed extra space for background vocals or guitar overdubs, and then they went into Pro Tools.
Working on the tracks for Evil Urges was the first time My Morning Jacket had gone in the box at all, and James was leery of the experiment. “The great thing about tape is that you cannot screw with it infinitely like you can in the digital TV-screen world,” the singer explains. “Once you record to tape, there are only so many things you can do to it. I like that you cannot look at it; you can only hear it. I think there's something to be said for that.
“This record was cool because I felt like we had one foot in the past and one in the present,” he continues. “I enjoyed this process, as it was the first My Morning Jacket record where we had tried using a computer. In hindsight, working with the computer frustrates me more than I feel it helps because people want to look at that screen and analyze it to death.”
Chiccarelli certainly kept that in mind, tracking the band playing live and always keeping his ears tuned to the overall sound. “Having seen the band live and knowing what they're capable of doing, it was definitely important to have that energy, but still have the production value that Z had,” Chiccarelli says. “There is so much texture in the record that I wanted to make sure we were able to meld both worlds.”
To accomplish that, the producer kept the sessions moving, choosing songs to record each day based on a combination of band vibe and logistics. For example, Chiccarelli says that they tackled all of the R&B-flavored songs in a row because of where they had to set up Hallahan's drum kit. “We did them in the vocal booth,” Chiccarelli says, “which was a closet, basically. We crammed the drums in there with very few mics. Most of the time it was an [Electro-Voice] RE20 on the bass drum, a [Shure] 57 on the snare and a tube [Neumann] 47 overhead.”
The disc's more rocking songs were tracked in the main room with multiple mics and very little baffling, while for the mid-tempo numbers Chiccarelli sound-proofed the room differently with baffles and cut the number of microphones by half.
Tommy's bass tracks varied from song to song, depending on the song's vibe. To that end, he bounced from bass to bass, and his rig varied from an Ampeg B-15 to a big 8×10 cabinet. Guitarist Broemel pushed his tracks through two or three different amplifiers, and his rig was recorded in stereo. What made Broemel's sound interesting, Chiccarelli says, was his use of pedals like Durham Electronics' Sex Drive and an Eventide Time Factor. In fact, those two pedals show up all over the record: “The Sex Drive pedal was also used on a lot of keyboard and vocals,” Chiccarelli says, “and the Time Factor pedal also showed up on vocals. We did experiment a lot.”
My Morning Jacket fans know that James has a penchant for reverb-drenched vocals, and while the performances on Evil Urges are a bit more up-front and clean, there are moments where reverb carries his track. “Jim uses reverb just like a painter uses light,” Chiccarelli says. “In fact, it's a color to him, a texture, and it's one that he really likes. I will say, though, that these songs are a little bit more immediate and perhaps not so surreal, so it called for less of that.”
James also views his vocals as another instrument in the band, so just as they would swap out guitars and amps for different feels, the team changed mics and reverbs for each song. Some of the vocal microphones included a Neumann 47 tube, an Altec 639 ribbon, an RCA 77DX ribbon, and Shure SM58s and SM7s.
There was also some experimentation on Koster's keyboards. “We used the new Leslie that has a tube overdrive in it and a preamp,” Chiccarelli says. “Most of the keyboards were amped — anything from Fender to Matchless, depending on the song and the sound. Bo likes the three-dimensionality of putting it through an amplifier and being able to use the reverb or the tremolo on the amp.”
During the six weeks at Avatar, the band recorded about a song a day, but that's not to say that they only worked on one song each day. Chiccarelli says that after they got a track down, rather than calling it quits they would start to work on the next song to sow the seeds for the next day. “Very often, most of the takes that we kept came in the first or second take the next morning,” the producer says. “It's sort of like everyone had to be rehearsed and get their parts clear, and then come in and hit it fresh.”
During those late-night spins through the songs, Chiccarelli says the band was always open to suggestions. “A lot of the foundations they got out of the way in Colorado, but when you get in the studio and listen to things, all of a sudden bass parts seem a little busier than they need to be and drum grooves aren't as solid as you thought, so a lot of that stuff got worked on,” he explains. “Most of Jim's vocals were done very casually in not many takes. Sometimes there would be songs that he would sing once and we would get a vocal, and a few days later, he would say, ‘I wonder if I can beat that? You think I can beat that? Let me try it again.’ He was very open to going back to things that I felt weren't really killing vocally.”
Some of those vocals were cut at Avatar, but most were done at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, where band and crew reconvened after a three-week break. In addition to James' vocals, the Blackbird dates were taken up with tracking guitar overdubs and background vocals. Once those dates were completed, the tracks were handed over to Michael Brauer, who had previously worked with My Morning Jacket on the 2006 Okonokos live release.
Fans and critics alike have heralded Evil Urges for its diverse soundscape, with songs bouncing between dance influenced-R&B numbers and more traditional Americana rock 'n' roll. From James' seat, he's looking forward to taking this experience into the next album. “I'm very happy with and proud of this record, but I'm never really 100-percent happy with anything I do,” he says. “So I am always looking forward to making the next record and to see how we can do it different and better and be excited time and time again.”
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